Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s return to the London Philharmonic, of which he is the Guest Principal Conductor, was as usual greeted with a full and enthusiastic concert hall. His strengths in the French repertoire and choral music made him the perfect conductor for an evening of music by Dutilleux and Shostakovich, whose Tout un monde lointain and Symphony no. 13 provided an evening of fantastic music and music-making.

Jean-Guihen Queyras © Marco Borggreve
Jean-Guihen Queyras
© Marco Borggreve

Tout un monde lointain was written for Mstislav Rostropovich (who thereby provides the link between the first and second pieces of the evening), and shows off how versatile the cello is without offering gratuitous virtuosity. Jean-Guihen Queyras showed that he had perfect control over his instrument, and seemed to relish the opportunity to play not only some of the piece’s stunning melodies, but also its moments of more angular pizzicato. Nézet-Séguin brought a warm French sound out of the string section, adding to the lush ambience of the music. Queyras’s playing has a uniquely warm sound and perfect technique, yet his projection was lacking and at times he was barely audible. But this was only a minor hitch; the performances from both the orchestra and soloist were captivating.

Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 13 “Babi Yar” is his most outwardly programmatic work. Set to five different poems by Yevgeni Yevtushenko, the symphony works its way through an array of themes that are all closely related to Soviet terror. The music complements the texts, but above all, these poems are perfectly suited to Shostakovich’s music and the symphony is not only a bleak work inspired by terror, but one of irony and defiance.

The first movement is set to lyrics that concern the massacre at Babi Yar, and it is an open denunciation of antisemitism. After the fated words “They’re breaking down the door” (sung by the chorus) and Petrenko’s response “No! It’s the ice breaking” the orchestra burst out into a violent explosion, a perfect example of how Shostakovich’s setting of the poems makes them even more compelling. Nézet-Séguin and the London Philharmonic gave a dynamic and enthralling performance, with a reading of the music that brought out the subtleties and undercurrents, but never overplayed the potential melodrama that certain interpretations of the work bring out.

The London Philharmonic Choir’s diction and timing were spot on, and the balance between the choir and orchestra was carefully maintained by Nézet-Séguin throughout the concert. The choir plays a very important role in the Symphony no. 13 – often they deliver some of the most powerful lines. The opening lines of the first movement – “There is no memorial above Babi Yar. The steep ravine is like a crude tombstone. I’m frightened, I feel as old today as the Jewish race itself” – are vital, and they, as the rest of the symphony, were sung beautifully and with conviction.

After the emotional onslaught of the first movement, the sardonic nature of “Humour” is all the more biting. It’s a movement that at times seems almost maniacal. Nézet-Séguin and the London Philharmonic relished the opportunity to turn up the speed, but the much calmer sound of the third movement, “In the Store”, came just as naturally to them. Petrenko’s delivery and presentation was utterly convincing throughout the performance, but the opening lines of “In the store” were extraordinary.

The fourth movement, Fears, really exemplified the strength of this performance. With an understated opening that included an exquisite solo from tuba player Lee Tsarmaklis it was one of the most powerful moments of the evening. Once Petrenko joined in, it seemed as if the woodwinds and brass were portraying the haunting fear that the poem talks about; “fears slithered everywhere, like shadows, penetrating every floor”. This fear is made audible, and Nézet-Séguin’s careful control of the orchestra and eye for detail meant that there was an intense but indefinable feeling of unrest during this movement. This feeling is made much worse by one of the strangest parts of the symphony; the sudden march that the choir bursts into. The irony of a jolly march set to words such as “We weren’t afraid of […] going into battle under shell fire, but at times we were mortally afraid of talking to ourselves” will not be lost on any listener, but in the context of the London Philharmonic’ precise and profound interpretation of this movement it was made all the more disturbing.

The prolonged applause after the Symphony no. 13 was much deserved, and showed the appreciation of the audience for the great form that the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Petrenko and Nézet-Séguin were on. I cannot but hope that Nézet-Séguin will return to London with more exploration of Shostakovich’s repertoire, as this performance showed that it is quite the combination.